As surveyor-general of New South Wales, Major Thomas Mitchell paved the way for the settlement of the rich agricultural tracts of inland Australia. But he was also an inventor, artist, linguist, poet and a passionate explorer.

By John Dunn

Across much of eastern Australia, from central Queensland in the north to the shoreline of Bass Strait in the south, there are scores of monuments standing resolutely by the major highways, alongside the secondary roads and in the centre of country towns, all devoted to one man. These monuments come in various forms – cairns of various shapes and sizes, inscripted rocks, roads, reserves, a highway as well as a cockatoo, a hopping mouse and a type of grass – but they all stand as lasting tributes to Sir Thomas Mitchell, the man who laid the groundwork for many of those road links through his work as surveyor-general of the infant colony of New South Wales in the early part of the 1800s. There are probably more reminders of Mitchell (more than 70 in Victoria and more than 40 in Queensland as well as those in New South Wales) than of any other Australian.
The routes on which they are placed, which are followed today by millions of vehicles in this part of the nation, were largely laid out by Mitchell as he established the best directions for the settlers to take as they began to move out from their Sydney arrival site in search of the rich, rural land they hoped to find in the interior. Indeed, Mitchell’s pathways played a vital role in opening up inland Australia. His work has been widely acknowledged through the years and, today, a diverse group of people and organisations scattered across the country are helping to ensure his legacy is properly recorded and his achievements appropriately honoured. They include a leading lawyer in Brisbane, council officials in the Queensland town that bears his name, surveyors in Sydney, a former teacher in Tamworth, NSW, longstanding property owners near Molong, NSW, and a government department in Victoria.
Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was a Scot who came from a poor family that struggled even more when his father died when he was 10. A step-uncle put him through the University of Edinburgh and he subsequently enlisted in the army in 1811 to fight in the Peninsular War against Napoleon. He served under the legendary ‘Iron Duke’, the Duke of Wellington, in Spain and Portugal, mainly surveying and mapping the terrain.
This formed the basis of his career in Australia later on, but it was not the extent of Mitchell’s abilities. He was an accomplished linguist – fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese with a working knowledge of German and Latin – and a skilled artist and poet. He received a honorary law doctorate from Oxford University and had an extensive mechanical knowledge that led him, aided by his observations of the Aboriginal boomerang and kangaroo skin waterbag, to contribute to the invention of a propeller for steamships and a canvas waterbag, which many rural Australians have found invaluable over the years. However, all these attributes failed to find him suitable local employment when the war ended, so he accepted the position of deputy surveyor-general in New South Wales and sailed for Sydney in 1827 with his wife and the first of his family, which later grew to six boys (two of whom became surveyors) and six girls as well as two adopted Aboriginal children.
The following year, surveyor-general John Oxley died and Mitchell succeeded him, thus beginning a notable career that lasted until his death in 1855, aged 63. Mitchell was a workaholic, with he and his staff measuring more land and laying the basis for more roads in his first six years than his predecessors had done in the previous 40 years. But exploring was Mitchell’s first love, and he made four inland expeditions: to the Barwon and Gwydir rivers in 1831-1832, following the course of the Darling in 1835, through southern New South Wales and western and northern Victoria in 1836 and into central Queensland in 1845-1846. The prevailing view at the time was that there must be a large inland river, similar to the Amazon and the Ganges, in Australia, and Mitchell was determined to find it. On his first two trips he even took canvas and patterns to build boats. Of course there was no such river, but Mitchell’s journeys helped to pave the way for the settlement that followed.
Mitchell was able to study and map the rivers that did exist: the Murray, Darling, Lachlan, Macquarie, Barcoo, Balonne, Barwon, Bogan and Gwydir. Apart from his fellow leaders, his expeditions were largely staffed by some of the 1800 convicts who had worked for him during his survey and road construction work. Although he was a stern disciplinarian, most were keen to be members of his party because he treated them fairly and arranged for sentence reductions for those who were loyal and hardworking.
As well as the invaluable geographical data he collected, Mitchell’s observations on the potential of the country he traversed were of huge benefit to the settlers who followed him. Such was the case with his exploration of the area from Pyramid Hill, near the Murray, extending south into Victoria, which he called Australia Felix. “As I stood, the first intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains as yet untouched by flocks and herds, I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes there; for our steps would soon be followed by the men and animals for which it seemed prepared”. Also, from Mount Abundance in central Queensland, he looked down on the plains where Emerald and Blackall now stand and declared it “the finest country I have ever seen in a primeval state”.
Following his third expedition, Mitchell was knighted and, after the last, was promoted to colonel, but to this day he is known as ‘Major Mitchell’. He was not an easy man to deal with and was generally described as being “a hot head, arrogant, intemperate, quarrelsome and possessing a volcanic temper”. These characteristics were probably by-products of his fierce ambition and intense pride, but they did not help his relations with the five governors who ruled the colony during his term. He fought verbally with all of them and physically with Stuart Donaldson, who later became premier of New South Wales. In what is believed to be the last recorded duel in Australia, each of them fired three shots with the only damage being a hole in Donaldson’s hat.
John Read, of Mount Kuring-gai on the northern outskirts of Sydney, is an emeritus surveyor of the Institution of Surveyors NSW. As a fellow surveyor and researcher of Mitchell’s, he has formed the following conclusion. “I’d hate to work for him but he was a superb surveyor, cartographer, administrator and explorer who got things done,” he says.
The institution has embarked on the NSW Major Mitchell Commemorative Project because, according to John, who is the project’s coordinator, not enough has been done in New South Wales to recognise Mitchell’s achievements compared to Victoria and Queensland. The project began in 2002 and has retraced the explorer’s steps to identify appropriate sites where monuments and information boards should be placed. Already some have been erected at Moree, Narrabri, Boggabri, Edgeroi and Mungindi, and others will follow at centres like Bourke, Wilcannia and Wentworth.
In Victoria, the former Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands completed the Major Mitchell Trail in 1990 by marking the journeys he made through the state with signs and information boards so that there was “the opportunity to retrace his footsteps”. It also published a comprehensive guide with maps and historical background, illustrated by many of his sketches, “providing a fascinating insight into western Victoria before European settlement”.
One of the most imposing of Mitchell’s many monuments is at Boree, NSW, a small settlement between Orange and Parkes. Here, three of his expeditions began, which is commemorated at a road junction near Little Boree Station owned by the MacSmith family. It was on this property, then known as “Buree”, that Mitchell completed his preparations. Captain Raine was the owner then, but the MacSmith family bought it in the 1850s and, today, Lance and Marianne MacSmith proudly relive those historical aspects. They treasure a copy of Mitchell’s Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, presented to Lance’s step-grandmother by Mitchell’s youngest son Richard in 1901. Part of the family property is called “Corroboree”, after the entry in Mitchell’s diary describing the “highly original dance” put on for him by the Aboriginals of the area. Lance’s mother Bertha MacSmith, in a family history entitled Quench Not The Spirit, records Mitchell’s links, including his own reference to a nearby hill that he climbed to get his bearings before making a start.
One of the most recent Mitchell commemorations was in Tamworth, NSW, in December, when former teacher Mike Cashman, who is president of the local historical society, organised a walk to mark the 175th anniversary of Mitchell’s entry into the Peel Valley. Wearing the colourful outfit of Mitchell’s men (white trousers with red shirt and white crossed braces), Mike led a group retracing the explorer’s path between two camp sites: at Clay Creek, Bithramere, NSW, and Wallamore, about 10 kilometres from the town. “Mitchell, in general, was a great Australian achiever and, in particular, he played a significant role in the exploration and later settlement of the Tamworth region,” he says.
Mike is the proud owner of a two-volume set of Mitchell’s 1838 publication Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, which he believes may have been the personal property of the family. He is a strong supporter of more Australian history being taught to young people and laments the “scant knowledge about the beginnings of British settlement” among our students. “A knowledge of who we are and where we came from strengthens our citizenship as Australians and must be encouraged in our school system,” he adds.
Many writers, historians and observers have examined Mitchell and most have given favourable pronouncements. The Empire, a Sydney newspaper of his era, wrote that “among the early explorers his name will occupy a honoured place in the estimation of posterity”, while the Illustrated London News called him “the James Cook of the Australian interior”. Jack Darby, surveyor-general of New South Wales from 1979-1985, said he was “pre-eminent as a surveyor in his time and his achievements in the development and land settlement of New South Wales stand as enduring testimony to his immense knowledge, ability and determination”.
William Foster, in his book Sir Thomas Livingston [sic] Mitchell and His World, describes Mitchell as “a major figure in the development of the Australian colonies”, while historian and archivist James Bonwick says, “the most effective exploration of this country was by Mitchell”. Gregory Eccleston in his publication, Major Mitchell’s 1836 Australia Felix Expedition, writes, “He observed so acutely and recorded so accurately that his steps may be retraced with greater accuracy than those of any other Australian explorer”.
Tony Morris, a leading Queen’s Counsel in Brisbane, brings a contemporary view. “I believe Mitchell was Australia’s first technocrat – a career public servant whose defining feature was being good at what he did both as a surveyor and explorer,” he says. “He rose from obscurity, without money or connections, to be the first person knighted for his service in Australia.” He adds that the disputes that Mitchell had in the colony are “consistent with his being a technocrat – because he was better qualified than anyone else in the administration, he tended to be short-tempered with the ‘amateurs’ who did not see things as clearly as he did”.
Tony became interested in Mitchell through his family’s connection with the Queensland town. His great-grandfather established a grocery store there in the 1890s and it remained in the family until two years ago. “Mitchell will never be as colourful as many other explorers, especially Burke and Wills and Leichhardt, because his expeditions were professional operations, planned very carefully and well equipped, based on Mitchell’s training and experience as a surveyor and in the military, so they may seem a bit boring by comparison with those which ended in death and disaster,” he says. “Yet his achievements were extraordinary. Many of the highways which connect this nation, especially in New South Wales and Victoria, still follow the trails he blazed – he had an uncanny instinct for selecting the best route for a road.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007